Psychology Of Intrinsic Motivation Research Paper

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Motivation concerns the processes through which behaviors are initiated and directed. Intrinsic motivation is a type of motivation that does not require reinforcers, pertains to activities that individuals find interesting, and requires the nutriments of psychological need satisfaction to function optimally. Herein, we review the emergence of the concept, discuss the field of inquiry as it has evolved, and point to its real-world relevance.

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1. Historical Roots Of Intrinsic Motivation

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, the initiation and direction of behavior was addressed primarily by learning theory (Hull 1943) and operant theory (Skinner 1953)—the two strands of behaviorism that dominated empirical psychology at that time. The two theoretical approaches shared several fundamental beliefs and theoretical propositions, the most important being that both claimed external reinforcers were the basis for behavioral regulation. The most important difference was that Hullian theory gave content to motivational processes by defining reinforcements in terms of the reduction of universal physiological needs, whereas Skinnerian theory defined reinforcements functionally as consequences of behavior that change its likelihood of recurring.

During that same period, studies began to uncover anomalies related to exploration and manipulation that could not be explained by either behavioral approach (Harlow 1953). Thus, White (1959) stated that a new type of motivational concept was necessary. Calling it effectance motivation and giving it a critical role in development, White suggested that people are inherently motivated to be effective in dealing with their surroundings. Subsequently, de Charms (1968) proposed an additional motivational propensity that does not operate by reinforcement principles, calling it personal causation.

Deci (1975) used the term intrinsic motivation to encompass both ideas about people’s inherent tendency towards effective, volitional engagement with the environment. Suggesting that people are intrinsically motivated to take interest in novelty, assimilate experience, and apply their acquired skills flexibly, he defined the concept both operationally and theoretically. The operational definition, which was formulated in contrast to the Skinnerian assertion that all ‘voluntary’ behaviors are controlled by reinforcements in the environment, stated that intrinsically motivated behaviors are self-rewarding and thus do not require reinforcers that are operationally separable from the behaviors. The theoretical definition of intrinsic motivation, which was formulated in contrast to the Hullian assertion that all behaviors are derived from the four universal physiological needs, defined intrinsically motivated behaviors as those that people do out of interest when they experience satisfaction of the universal psychological needs for competence and autonomy.

At about the time reinforcement processes were found inadequate for explaining a variety of behaviors, intention emerged as the central concept for explaining behavioral regulation (Heider 1958). Accordingly, people undertake intrinsically motivated activities expecting to find them interesting and enjoyable, assuming they feel competent and self-determined while doing them.

2. The Organismic Metatheory

The concept of intrinsic motivation was a dramatic departure from motivation as it had been viewed in experimental psychology, for it eschewed the ideas of passivity and conditioning in favor of natural proactivity and growth. As such, it necessitated a significant shift from a mechanistic toward an organismic metatheory within the psychology of motivation. It became essential to view people as self-initiating beings who learn and develop as they proactively engage the environment. Intrinsic motivation represents the prototype of self-initiated behavior.

The explication and early investigation of intrinsic motivation involved contrasting it with extrinsic motivation, which refers to engaging in an activity for consequence other than the spontaneous feelings that accompany it. The classic example of extrinsic motivation is doing an activity to attain a reward or avoid a punishment. Employing attribution theory, de Charms (1968) stated that intrinsically motivated behaviors have an internal perceived locus of causality, while extrinsically motivated behaviors have an external perceived locus of causality, and Lepper et al. (1973) defined intrinsic motivation as behaviors for which people infer internal causes, and extrinsic motivation as those for which they infer external causes. Kruglanski (1975) proposed that when intrinsically motivated, rewards are endogenous to the activity, whereas when extrinsically motivated, rewards are exogenous.

3. Research On Intrinsic Motivation

Initial research on intrinsic motivation examined the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation, finding that extrinsic rewards did undermine intrinsic motivation within limiting conditions (e.g., Deci 1975). Specifically, the undermining occurred when the activity was initially interesting and the rewards were both contingent on doing the activity and expected while doing it.

This general finding, which has now been replicated numerous times was controversial when it first appeared and has remained controversial ever since. In fact, the controversy was very apparent recently when Eisenberger and Cameron (1996) published a high visibility article in which they reported having done a meta-analysis of experiments examining reward effects on intrinsic motivation and having found little evidence for the undermining effect. However, Deci et al. (1999) subsequently pointed out many errors and inappropriate procedures in that Eisenberger and Cameron meta-analysis and did a new meta-analysis that corrected the previous shortcomings. The newer meta-analysis, involving 128 studies, confirmed, in fact, that tangible extrinsic rewards do reliably undermine intrinsic motivation for the rewarded activity, as had been concluded previously in narrative reviews of the literature (e.g., Deci and Ryan 1985).

Part of the significance of the undermining effect is that it indicates that motivation is not a unitary concept, varying only in amount, because these two types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—are not additive. Indeed, it has turned out that the orientation of motivation—whether a behavior is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated—is more important than the overall amount of motivation for predicting behavior and its consequences (Ryan and Deci 2000).

In fact, numerous studies have shown that intrinsic, relative to extrinsic, motivation was associated with better conceptual learning, greater creativity, more cognitive flexibility, greater behavioral persistence, and enhanced well-being (Deci and Ryan 1985, Utman 1997). Given these findings, a thorough investigation of the social–contextual conditions that facilitate versus impede intrinsic motivation seemed essential.

Because the needs for competence and autonomy were theorized to be crucial nutriments for intrinsic motivation, contextual factors that allowed satisfaction of the needs for competence and autonomy were predicted to enhance intrinsic motivation, whereas those that thwarted satisfaction of these basic needs were predicted to undermine intrinsic motivation.

Studies concerned with competence showed that positive performance feedback enhanced intrinsic motivation, that negative feedback diminished it, and that perceived competence mediated these effects. Other research found that increases in perceived competence must be accompanied by feelings of autonomy in order for the perceived competence to enhance intrinsic motivation. In fact, far more studies have examined autonomy than competence as a mediator of contextual effects on intrinsic motivation. This research has shown that threats, deadlines, directives, and pressured competition, like extrinsic rewards, diminished intrinsic motivation, presumably because people tend to experience them as limiting their autonomy (i.e., as controlling their behavior). On the other hand, choice, the opportunity for self-direction, and acknowledging people’s feelings have been found to enhance intrinsic motivation because they provide a greater sense of autonomy (Deci and Ryan 1985).

Other research conducted in real-world settings such as homes, classrooms, and work groups revealed a general interpersonal style referred to as autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) that, when used by parents, teachers, and managers, catalyzed greater intrinsic motivation and self-determination in their children, students, and employees. Thus, both specific external events, such as the offer of rewards, and general interpersonal ambiences can affect intrinsic motivation, enhancing it by supporting people’s feelings of autonomy and competence and undermining it by diminishing those feelings (Deci and Ryan 1985).

4. Extrinsic Motivation

The abundance of research showing that extrinsic motivators such as rewards, deadlines, threats, and evaluations tend to undermine intrinsic motivation would seem to imply that extrinsic motivation is invariantly nonautonomous. However, research has shown that extrinsic motivation can become autonomous or self-determined through the processes of internalizing and integrating behavioral regulations and their underlying values (Ryan and Deci 2000). Internalization is the process of taking in a value or regulation, and integration is the process of transforming that value or regulation into one’s own.

Self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan 1985) suggests that when extrinsic motivation has merely been taken in but not transformed or integrated it will continue to control and diminish feelings of autonomy. An example is ego-involvement (i.e., internal pressure to do a behavior in order to feel worthy), and studies have shown that this type of motivation is antagonistic to autonomy (Deci and Ryan 1985).

However, extrinsic motivation that has been more fully integrated allows the feeling of autonomy and has been found to predict more positive outcomes, such as better school performance, greater persistence at healthy behaviors, and enhanced psychological well-being not only in the USA but in various countries including Japan (Ryan and Deci 2000).

Research has also considered the effects of social contexts on internalization and integration, focusing primarily on whether contextual factors tend to be controlling versus supportive of self-determination. In both laboratory and field settings, these studies demonstrated that providing a meaningful rationale for an uninteresting behavior, along with supports for autonomy and relatedness, promoted internalization and integration. Controlling contexts (relative to contexts that allowed need satisfaction) yielded less overall internalization, as evidenced by less subsequent behavior, and the internalization that did occur in controlling contexts was less well integrated (Deci et al. 1994). Field studies using both cross-sectional and longitudinal designs also found fuller internalization of values and regulations when parents (Grolnick and Ryan 1989) and instructors (Williams and Deci 1996) were more supportive of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, thus suggesting that supports for these three basic needs facilitate the internalization and integration of extrinsic motivation.

5. Conclusions

The central element in the psychology of intrinsic motivation is the critical distinction between behaviors that are volitional and accompanied by the experience of freedom and autonomy—those that emanate from one’s sense of self—and behaviors that are accompanied by the experience of pressure and control and are not manifestations of self (Ryan and Deci 2000). Intrinsically motivated behaviors, which are performed out of interest and are characterized by perceived competence and autonomy, are the prototype of self-determined behaviors.

Research examining internalization and integration of extrinsic motivation and the conditions that facilitate it is important for the psychology of intrinsic motivation for two main reasons. It shows first, that although the naturally occurring state of intrinsic motivation is the prototype of volitional, self-determined activity, extrinsic motivation can approximate that state if the organismic processes of internalization and integration have operated effectively, and second, that the inherent processes of intrinsic motivation and integration of extrinsic motivation are similarly facilitated in social contextual conditions that allow satisfaction of people’s innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

Thus, it seems that interpersonal contexts created by teachers, parents, managers, healthcare providers, and other individuals in positions of responsibility can have a substantial impact on the degree to which others, such as students, children, employees, and patients maintain their intrinsic motivation and become more volitional and self-determined with respect to extrinsic motivation.


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